Although El Salvador is often overlooked because of the "danger factor," this tiny country has much to offer, and is safer for travelers than its reputation suggests. Most of the crime committed is gang-related and the chances of the average tourist being affected are negligible. In fact, El Salvadorians are some of the most welcoming people in Central America.
Surfers are drawn to El Salvador because it has some of the best breaks in the world. Even if you don't surf, the unspoiled beaches are beautiful and refreshingly uncrowded. Apart from beaches, the country is home to cute colonial towns, coffee plantations, active volcanoes to scale, and beautiful national parks to explore -- making El Salvador an adventurer's dream destination!
An added bonus is that El Salvador is a bargain. Transportation, food, and accommodation are all cheap and U.S. dollars are the official currency. El Salvador is perfect for the traveler who likes to get off the beaten path and experience somewhere unique.
Since the civil war ended in 1992, El Salvador has become a mecca for surfers. La Libertad, just half an hour's drive from the capital of San Salvador, is a laid-back town popular with both surfers and backpackers who are happy to swing in a hammock with a beer in hand. La Libertad is home to Punta Roca, a world-class point-break. For surfers who like to escape the crowds, there are nearby headlands with excellent waves and fewer people trying to catch them.
Archeaology & Culture Tours
Although Mayan archaeological sites in El Salvador aren't quite in the same league as those in other Central American countries, there are a couple of important sites worth visiting. Joya de Ceren is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known as the Pompeii of Central America, having been well-preserved after being covered in ash following a volcanic eruption. The main structures have been excavated, offering an insight into the lives of ancient Mayans.
Tazumal is another impressive site where you can explore tombs, pyramids, and palaces. There's a life-size statue of Mayan God, Xipe Totec, and an onsite museum.
El Salvador is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire and is home to 22 volcanoes -- six of them are active! Santa Ana is the highest and most active, having last erupted in 2015. It's possible to climb the volcano and the reward is not only great views, but the sight of a beautiful turquoise lake that fills the crater.
Volcan de Izalco, which is known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific, last erupted in 1966 and steam vents are still active at the summit. The climb is a little more challenging than Santa Ana, but equally rewarding with awesome views. Santa Ana and De Izalco are both in Volcanoes National Park, approximately a 90 minute drive from San Salvador.
Hiking & Trekking Tours
With its contrasting landscape of mountains, volcanoes, and forests, there are a number of national parks to explore. El Boquerón is the smallest and closest to San Salvador, and has excellent views of the capital and mountains. It's also a great place for armadillo-spotting.
El Imposible National Park is close to the Guatemalan border and offers extreme hiking in the mountains, gorges, and valleys. There are opportunities to see a great array of wildlife including rare birds, ocelots, and anteaters.
Adventurers head for Montecristo, a cloud forest full of ferns and orchids and a wide variety of flora and fauna. The main attraction is the hike to the summit of El Trifinio where El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala meet.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit El Salvador
The best time to visit El Salvador is in the dry season between November and April.
What to Look for in a Tour to El Salvador
Surfing and volcano-hiking are two specialized tours that are possible to take in El Salvador. General tours take in the highlights such as La Libertad, Volcanoes National Park, Ataco, Suchitoto, and Jiquilisco Bay.
Before deciding on which tour to book, it's a good idea to check out whether meals and entrance fees are included in the cost, how large the group is likely to be, and what standard of accommodation is provided. You may also want to find out whether the company is ethical and actively promotes responsible travel.
Checking reviews always makes sense as you can rest assured that previous customers have been happy with the service they have received. Also, have a look at the itinerary to ensure that the destinations you want to visit are covered and that you'll be spending an adequate amount of time in each place.
Typical Tour Cost
A small group tour taking in the best of El Salvador would cost in the region of $1,000-$1,200.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
El Salvador is very casual, so no need to take anything too formal. Make sure you pack a hat to protect yourself from the scorching sun. Quick-drying items of clothing are practical so that you can wash things as you go and pack light. Bug spray and sunscreen are essentials.
If you are planning on doing lots of surfing, you can rent boards for $15 a day or $75 a week, saving you the hassle of transporting your own board.
Other Tips for Travel in El Salvador
By eating local food such as tamales, empanadas, and pupusas, you can save lots of cash. In the big cities, you will find Pizza Hut, Burger King, and all the major fast-food restaurants, but eating what the locals eat is not only more fun but also lighter on the wallet. The local fruit is sweet and fresh and it costs mere pennies for a bag of mangoes!
Try and keep a stash of $1 and $5 bills handy. Change can be hard to come by, so having small bills in reserve is useful.
The El Salvadorian plumbing system can't take toilet paper, so always throw used paper into the bin provided or it could cause a blockage.
Health & Safety
It is wise to seek medical advice before heading to El Salvador. In general, Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are recommended. Rabies and typhoid shots are recommended for longer-term visitors and a yellow fever certificate is required if you have come from an endemic area.
Malaria is not a high risk unless you are heading to remote areas, but use bug spray and cover up to avoid bites as there can be outbreaks of dengue fever on the coast. Don't drink the water, but buy it bottled or boil/ filter the water yourself.
El Salvador has a reputation as being very dangerous, but with common sense and self-awareness, most travelers have an enjoyable and trouble-free vacation.
Always be conscious of your belongings, especially on buses and at bus stations. When you go out for the day, take as few valuables as necessary. Take extra caution in large cities where you should avoid certain neighborhoods and not walk the streets after nightfall.
If you are hiking, you may be required to have a police escort with you in case of muggings. This is free and easy to arrange.